GREIG Laidlaw will bid to shrug off the disappointments of Scotland’s autumn defeats and the loss of national coach Andy Robinson when he leads Edinburgh into RaboDirect PRO12 action against Connacht this evening and a meeting with his predecessor.
The stand-off is one of five international players returning to club duty from last weekend’s Tonga loss, Nick De Luca, Matt Scott, Tim Visser and David Denton the others being pressed straight back into action, and tonight Laidlaw will come up against Dan Parks for the first time in the Connacht ranks.
Parks started the year back in the Scotland ten jersey, having been persuaded by Robinson to come back after being dropped in the World Cup. But after a poor display by the Scotland team against England in a dismal Calcutta Cup match, Parks announced his retirement from Test rugby and Laidlaw was handed the reins.
Laidlaw is now feeling the same pressure that encircled Parks and the heavy responsibility that comes with the pivotal role after the delights of a summer tour turned to abject misery in Aberdeen last weekend. Parks has launched a new chapter in Ireland, where, after an early injury, he has been helping to guide the Connacht squad up the PRO12 table.
Connacht dropped back to ninth after losing to the Dragons last weekend, but still sit just three points behind the Scottish visitors tonight, and Edinburgh will not forget in a hurry the 26-13 defeat suffered at the Sportsground last season.
For head coach Michael Bradley the match represents a return to where he spent seven years in charge and he is confident that Laidlaw and all the returning caps are in a good frame of mind to put recent disappointments behind them and continue to drive an Edinburgh recovery begun with victory over the Ospreys last week by gaining revenge for that loss in Galway.
“In the past we might not have brought the Scotland players straight back in and maybe given them the weekend off after the Tests,” said Bradley, “but it’s vital that we build on the momentum from the Ospreys match, and have picked a strong side with the aim of doing just that.
“It was very important that we got a win last weekend. We badly needed to get a ‘W’ on the board and it’s been great for our confidence as we’ve prepared for Saturday’s game.
“Connacht target the arrival of the visiting Scottish sides because they feel they’ve an excellent chance of winning those games, and we’ve talked about that a lot at training this week as something we have to change.”
That insight may be invaluable as Bradley’s side strive to flex their newfound strength in depth. Among 12 players discounted through injury are forwards Ross Ford, Ross Rennie, Netani Talei and Dimitri Basilaia, and new fly-half from the Chiefs Piers Francis, centres Ben Atiga and Ben Cairns, and wings Lee Jones and Jamie Farndale.
Denton’s return pushes Sean Cox back to his favoured position at lock to partner Perry Parker and Andy Titterrell comes in for Ford, who suffered a shoulder injury against Ospreys last week. Retired Scotland prop Allan Jacobsen also returns to the starting XV.
Connacht are also missing virtually a whole pack of players to injury which, less than halfway through the season, says something about the demands of modern rugby. They are notably missing big ball-carriers with experienced back rows Mike McCarthy, Michael Swift, George Naoupu and John Muldoon all out, as well as Rodney Ah You, the big New Zealand U20 prop, and South African hooker Ethienne Reynecke. But while needing to bounce back from a 14-3 defeat by the Dragons, Connacht are seeking a third home win on the trot, with Leinster and Treviso both suffering league defeats in Galway this season.
They have also enjoyed a better showing in Europe this season than either of the Scottish sides by beating Zebre in Italy and only losing narrowly to Harlequins at home.
Edinburgh’s pack certainly looks powerful and skilful enough to take the game to Connacht and they have a back-line with more than enough talent to cause the hosts problems, provided they do take the initiative and set the tempo for the game in what can be a wild and windswept venue. They also need to ensure there are no Test hangovers for the returning caps and draw on their experience of how not to allow Parks to control the game.